You lucky people: whilst we are all (hopefully) self-isolating – watch how quickly that comment dates – you will have plenty of time to read the latest instalment of “What Is This Americana Thing Anyway” in which our writers and contributors tell us what, why and where they got into Americana. This week top bloke and diamond geezer Gordon (Not A Moron) Sharpe steers into his choices via a jazz route, which is refreshingly different, and tells us of his love for the smaller venue.
I would guess that most musical paths are less than straightforward and certainly mine has taken detours into Modern Jazz, Jazz-rock and even a latter-day appreciation of such as Led Zeppelin, a band I once had no time for. It’s still the case that I have periods where I want to listen to a particular, different, sound, be it B.B. King, Lifetime, McCoy Tyner, James McMurtry or Gil Scott Heron. It would surely be a dull life otherwise.
However, latterly I have felt a need to tone it all down a bit and focus on the artist’s lyrics and stories above all. To me, that chimes with a desire only to go to small intimate venues rather than some warehouse wherein the view would be restricted or even non-existent. I also conclude that whilst talent will generally prosper that a great deal of luck plays a part. I saw James McMurtry in the smallest of the Academy venues in Manchester and I don’t believe there is a better lyricist. I saw Terry Allen twice in Crewe, once in the local 6th form college and once in the café lounge bar (or whatever it was called) in the old and much-missed Limelight club. In both those cases if we are not talking large venues or mega popularity we are talking major talent. Just to prove the case, and this really will be my last departure from the Americana theme, I once saw Stan Tracey play before 25 people in the Mitchell Memorial Theatre in Stoke. Tracy was one of the few British Jazzers of undisputed world renown.
So Americana seems to fit with the desire for intimacy and connection with the artist wherein as an audience member you feel important, rather than just a digit in a record-breaking attendance. That’s what draws me to this genre as much as anything.
All of that said my choices may belie some of what I have just said – but remember this is a journey to the point where I got just as much pleasure, if not more, from seeing Slaid Cleaves at the local Biddulph ‘Up in Arms’ venue in an audience numbered in tens than I ever did from seeing (just about) Springsteen at Roundhay Park in Leeds or The Eagles at Wembley Stadium in the 1970s.
Taj Mahal – ‘Six Days On The Road’
“Fill Your Head with Rock” is for me the greatest compilation of all time – an eye and ear-opener for a teenager in far off West Cumbria in 1970. Therein was Taj Mahal playing the insanely infectious, joyous and well written, “Six Days On The Road”. Ok, he’s essentially a bluesman but there were career excursions into West Indian and Reggae music and in any case I would argue that the blues is a facet if not at the core of most Americana.
The Grateful Dead – ‘Me and My Uncle’
The Grateful Dead are indeed a Marmite band but if one half of their oeuvre is dodgy ‘space jams’ then the other half can be tight-knit, focussed tunes that get you thinking about camp-fire communal singing among friends. This is written, rather surprisingly, by John Philips given its dust on your pants authenticity.
Jesse Winchester – ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’
I think with Jesse Winchester I just took a punt on a likely artist – and was never disappointed.As an American transplanted to Canada he could be deemed a draft dodger but I would prefer draft resister. The track “Mississippi on My Mind” describes the longing of the displaced wonderfully well.
Randy Newman – ‘Louisiana 1927’
Randy Newman is an artist almost sui generis, with family roots in showbiz and films and currently a key part of the Toy Story brand. He is also a brilliant and idiosyncratic chronicler of America and able, almost without peer, to write songs from the viewpoint of a host of protagonists.Thank goodness for the sharp pens of such as Newman when history teaches the great and good nothing at all.
Richie Havens – ‘Freedom’
I seem to go on a lot about happenings in small spaces but it did strike me as particularly incongruous to see Richie Havens, one-time star of Woodstock (the greatest gathering of the new age etc etc blah blah) play before a handful of people. I would love to have known what he made of that.
James McMurty – ‘We Can’t Make It Here’
McMurtry does not have one of the great voices but somehow it’s just right for what he does – sometimes I wish he’d get the rhythm section to lighten up a little but that’s my only quibble. His albums are of exceptionally high quality and he can write convincingly about a range of subjects.
Tom Waits – ‘Closing Time’
I remember in the mid-seventies seeing Waits for the first time on the Old Grey Whistle test playing “Small Change” and thinking who is this dick? – I realise now that it was me. Waits career has been in distinctive phases and I prefer the early pre-megaphone work. An artist who justifies the much-overused description ‘unique’.
Johnny Allen – ‘Promised Land’
A track with enough bounce and verve to match “Six Days On the Road” and with a similar theme. It highlights, as if we didn’t know, what a great songwriter Chuck Berry was. I had high hopes of checking out Johnny Allen but I have never found anything he did that even comes close to this. Still, if this was my only achievement in life I would be more than happy.
Ry Cooder – ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live’
I remember watching someone carrying “Into the Purple Valley” across the 6th form common room and being disturbed that this was so obscure I had never heard of it. Soon rectified though. Performed by a man so handsome with so much inherent cool that it was just irresistible – and remains so.
Leon Russell – ‘Home Sweet Oklahoma’
I have written at length about Leon Russell before in our ‘Forgotten Artists’ series and as far as I am concerned nothing changes. He’s a great songwriter, a distinctive voice and an underrated musician.
Little Feat – ‘Willin”
Little Feat were never just Lowell George – were they? But my goodness what a talent and what a waste. I finish with another road song. The road means much more in a country the size of America (though as a proud Cumbrian I can point out that we do have our own route 66) than it does to us Brit but that doesn’t dull the enjoyment one iota.